Talk to the Animals? Try the all-important skill of talking to the audience -- especially the pint-size critters inevitably in attendance. And if this new legit version of the famed vegetarian-friendly books and movie is to make anything other than hinterland house calls for its entire lifespan, a mighty fast call will need to be made to a book doctor.

Talk to the Animals? Try the all-important skill of talking to the audience — especially the pint-size critters inevitably in attendance. And if this new legit version of the famed vegetarian-friendly books and movie is to make anything other than hinterland house calls for its entire lifespan, a mighty fast call will need to be made to a book doctor. Or surgeon. In its current form, decent production values, jolly Michael Curry puppets, an honorable lead performance, and those delightful Leslie Bricusse ditties cannot overcome a show that’s not only way, way too dark and cold, but utterly lacking in simple narrative coherence.

The problems start right at the beginning when unaccountably nasty parrot Polynesia invites us into the world of Dr. Dolittle. You’d think the show would offer a warm, beaked guide in the beloved fashion of such animal narrators. But as played by the shrill Susan J. Jacks, this winged creature comes off mainly as inclined to bite any little finger placed injudiciously inside its cage.

That parrot’s style — and that uneasy, weird, none-too-friendly atmosphere — persist throughout the show. Given the horrific masks worn by some of the human ensemble (think a combo of Munchkin and Halloween), one suspects the creatives were thwarting charges of Disney cute or of being tagged as strictly kid fare.They need to change their thinking fast. It’s impossible to fight the idea that “Dolittle” is a family attraction. (In St. Paul, kids made up at least a third of the audience.) And this show is in no danger of overdosing on charm. Au contraire.

The main romantic plot — between the populist, animal-chatting doc (Tom Hewitt) and the snobby Emma Fairfax (Nancy Anderson) — is similarly frigid. Granted, the point is that the stubborn pair has to overcome some Kate-and-Petruchio shenanigans, but Anderson’s brassy Emma is positively acidic for most of the show and displays nary a moment of vulnerability, even when she’s supposedly softened to the vet’s charms. And if we don’t care about Emma, we’ve lost half the point of the show.

Even more strangely, there’s a sidekick Irish character called Matthew Mugg (Tony Yazbeck), hanging around Dolittle and the show without even a date to call his own. He warbles one of the big romantic numbers, “After Today,” which is bizarrely about someone else’s relationship entirely. Can’t the guy get a love interest? A triangle with Emma? A thing for the doc? The poor fellow needs some reason to be on stage.

Once the creatives have got all that sorted out, the next problem to be fixed is the darn plot. The show is set up as a courtroom flashback, where Dolittle is on trial. Sort of. But the chronology is scrambled and impossible to keep straight. Sometimes the court is there in the back, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we go forward, sometimes back. And then the show switches to being not about the Doc’s pressing need to prove his innocence (by proving that he chats with critters, natch), but his desire to free a seal.

The seal stuff utterly overwhelms the talking stuff in the current reading. That’s a mistake. The show fundamentally has to be about one thing. So which is it?

It’s hard to fairly assess Hewitt’s perf given all the aforementioned problems, but one gets the sense he could be terrific, if only the detritus around him were removed. He’s likeable (when the material allows him to be) and it feels like a generous performance with a heart beating somewhere, but one that’s not yet discernible.

So what to do? Job one would be to use Curry’s terrific puppets and give the animals more shtick and some actual personality. We could also use a few laughs — now there’s a concept in a family musical. And it would be nice to get an actual lump in one’s throat instead of a perpetual feeling of unease. Most of all, the show needs more talking to animals, since that’s what half the audience came to see.

Dr. Dolittle

Ordway Theater, St. Paul, 1,850 seats, $60 top

Production

A Pittsburgh CLO, Nederlander Presentations, Independent Presenters Network and Columbia Artists Theatricals presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, based on "The Doctor Dolittle Stories" by Hugh Lofting and the 20th Century Fox Film. Directed by Glenn Casale. Musical director, Michael Duff. Choreography, Rob Ashford.

Creative

Sets, Kenneth Foy; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Ken Billington; puppetry, Michael Curry; sound, Duncan Edwards; production stage manager, Bryan Young. Opened Aug. 20, 2005. Reviewed Aug. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Doctor Dolittle - Tom Hewitt Emma Fairfax - Nancy Anderson Matthew Mugg - Tony Yazbeck General Bellowes - Eric Michael Gillett Polynesia - Susan J. Jacks Tommy Stubbins, Dab-Dab - Shadoe Alan Brandt Albert Blossom - Ed Dixon
With: Ellen Harvey, Mark Aldrich, Matt Allen, Jason Babinsky, Jenna Coker, Alexa Glover, Thom Graham, William R. Hubert III, Michael D. Jablonski, Ryan Jackson, Naomi Kakuk, Ian Knauer, Brittany Marcin, Michael McGurk, Christy Morton, Kathleen Nanni, Mahri Relin, Drew Taylor, Elisa Van Duyne.
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